Commencement 2013 marks a milestone for UConn’s John and Valerie Rowe Health Professions Scholars Program for undergraduates.
Monday, Shawnet Jones becomes the first Rowe scholar to graduate from the UConn School of Medicine.
Jones was part of the first class of Rowe Scholars, which helped enable her to attend UConn’s Combined Program in Medicine, starting in 2005 as an undergraduate. She credits the Rowe scholarship and the UConn Health Center’s Health Career Opportunity Programs (HCOP) as being vital to her growth as a student-turned-physician.
Jones, who says her desire to practice medicine goes “pretty much as far back as I can remember,” moved to the United States from Jamaica at age 3.
“My first exposure I would say is through my grandmother in Texas, who’s a registered nurse,” Jones says. “I remember going on the weekends with her to the hospital and seeing the doctors in their white coats with their stethoscopes. And I loved my pediatrician in Texas, and my one up here, and when I was there I would play with everything they had and always question them about what they were doing. That definitely piqued my interest, and it continued to grow throughout my life.”
By third grade her family had moved to Hartford, where six years later she would attend the private Watkinson School on a full scholarship. As a high school junior, she was interviewing for the Combined Program in Medicine at UConn and elsewhere.
In the summer of 2006, following her freshman year at Storrs, Jones enrolled in the College Enrichment Program, eight weeks of enhancing scientific and mathematics skills, shadowing physicians, and interacting with researchers. In doing so, she entered the pipeline of HCOP offerings for students from groups that are underrepresented in the health professions, made possible by support from the Aetna Foundation. The College Enrichment Program is part of the Aetna Health Professions Partnership Initiative.
“I was in the lab, culturing cells, and it was good because at the end of that summer I did a presentation of the work that we did and that was actually my first research poster that I’ve done,” Jones says. “That was really my first lab experience, it was through HCOP. And I was then able to use that poster at the New England Scientific Symposium in spring of 2008 that’s hosted by Harvard Medical School.”
Throughout their undergraduate years, Rowe scholars in the Combined Program in Medicine attend professional development programs and enrichment workshops, interacting with medical, dental, and graduate students and faculty. They also are eligible for research funding.
“I would like to acknowledge the wonderful vision of Jack and Valerie Rowe and the Aetna Foundation, whose support has been incalculable in our efforts to encourage urban youth to aspire to careers in the health professions,” says Dr. Marja Hurley, HCOP director.
It’s how Jones, right after her junior year at UConn, ended up on a service learning program in the Dominican Republic, working with Haitian immigrant workers on sugar cane plantations, known as bateys, in the town of La Romana.
“We decided to develop health-related workshops,” Jones says. “We had ones for nutrition, safe sex, and dental hygiene. And we got all the curriculum material together before we went down. We collected donations from churches and other community organizations that we were involved with to bring down clothes and food and money for the people that we’d be working with. And through interpreters we presented these workshops to the families that were living on the bateys. We did that for three weeks.”
She gave a presentation when she returned, and her experience shadowing a missionary in a private Dominican hospital inspired her to write her medical school essay about a patient she met there.
“That was a huge experience for me,” Jones says. “If it hadn’t been for the Rowe program I wouldn’t have been able to go down there because I didn’t have the funds – definitely one of the highlights of my undergrad program.”
That summer it was back to Aetna HPPI for Track 1 of the Medical/Dental Preparatory Program, a six-week program to prepare for the Medical College Admission Test.
“I took the MCAT that summer, and luckily I got a good enough score that I didn’t have to take it again,” Jones says. “I’m pretty sure that’s because of the HCOP program.”
She returned for Track 2 the following year, 2009, at this point having graduated from UConn with a Bachelor of Science in physiology and neurobiology.
“Essentially for the six weeks we had what would have been the first six weeks of medical school courses and got exposure to the professors who were going to be teaching us in the fall,” Jones says. “It was an abbreviated version of what was coming, but it was still very helpful. There was also shadowing incorporated with that.”
In the summer after her first year in medical school, Jones returned to the Medical/Dental Preparatory Program, this time as an MCAT tutor, working with students who were where she was just two years earlier.
“Through each stage of the HCOP program I had the opportunity to be both a mentor and a mentee,” Jones says. “The people ahead of me would give me advice about things to do, things to study, what to do with my summers when I was off. And as I went through the programs I was able to then pass that on to other students coming after me.”
As time permitted during her medical school years, Jones still involved herself in HCOP programs, sharing her experiences with others in the pipeline.
“The biggest thing that I like to share with others is what I would have liked people to tell me on my journey,” Jones says. “I was very naïve going into my career in medicine.”
Jones isn’t going far after commencement. She matched to the UConn Family Medicine Residency Program.
“I like the diversity of people I will interact with, and it’s really about the relationships,” Jones says. “I want to know my patients as intimately as I know my family. I think that’s the best way that I can provide the best care to them.”
“Shawnet is an excellent role model, Rowe Scholar, and Aetna Health Professions Partnership Initiative participant, and I am delighted that she will remain at the UConn Health Center for her residency and her plan to serve her community,” Hurley says.
As for others who are considering paths similar to hers, she offers this advice:
“There are not enough minorities, especially minority women, in medicine and the other health fields. There’s definitely a need, and there are programs that want to accept you. So in order to be eligible or look like a great applicant, you need to put in the hard work. You need to study. You need to do the community service. You need to shadow. Shadowing is imperative, because you need to have kind of an idea, a feel for what you’ll be doing in the long run.
“In terms of the economic and social hardships you’ve had to face in the past, don’t let that limit you,” she adds. “I’ve been told many times that you shouldn’t let where you come from dictate where you’re going. Take the past and the history that’s been given to you to empower you and make you stronger. Be proud of where you come from but don’t let it limit the opportunities that you seek for yourself. There are tons of scholarships out there. I didn’t pay for undergrad, I didn’t pay for high school, and I went to a great high school and a great undergrad program. So there are ways to get around those barriers. And when you do get to the programs or the schools that you want, don’t forget about the support systems that have been with you throughout your life.”